"This is Our Backyard!"

At its Western Balkans Summit the EU woos the non-member nations of Southeastern Europe with lip service. Russia and also China, the major vaccine supplier, are gaining influence in the region.

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Own report) - Paying lip service to alleged enlargement plans, the EU is seeking to shield the six non-member countries in Southeast Europe from Russian, Chinese and Turkish influence. The EU reconfirms its commitment to the "enlargement process" - i.e. the admission of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, which had seceded from Serbia in violation of international law, into the EU - according to a declaration adopted yesterday by the EU leaders in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia. Experts are not taking this statement seriously. To promote closer ties to the EU, the leaders also announced billions of euros in support of infrastructure projects and to provide the region with larger amounts of Covid-19 vaccines. So far, China has supplied more vaccine than the EU and is even building a vaccine plant in Serbia. Latvia's prime minister more blatantly calls for eliminating the influence of such countries as Russia and China in Southeast Europe "This is our backyard."

No Longer Without an Alternative

The EU took these decisions at its Western Balkans Summit yesterday, because - having been increasingly self-absorbed and entangled in its global activities - it has long since ceased to be without an alternative for the non-member countries of Southeastern Europe. Russia has reinforced its relations with North Macedonia and especially with Serbia, with whom it has been its third largest trading partner for years. Moscow and Belgrade have also concluded a "strategic partnership."[1] China, in turn, is intensifying its relations to almost all of the countries in the region and is now Serbia's second most important supplier - just behind Germany. It is particularly supporting infrastructure projects in Southeast Europe - the most famous example is the modernization of the railroad line between Belgrade and Budapest.[2] Turkey's efforts to gain influence have been little noticed but relatively successful. Turkey is particularly cooperating with countries, whose populations have a significant Muslim sector - especially with Bosnia- Herzegovina as well as Albania and Kosovo.[3] Last year, the Trump administration had also massively interfered - against the will of the EU.[4]

"Us or Them"

The above-mentioned countries' partial growth of influence in Southeast Europe is causing resentment and resistance within in the EU. "Western Balkans Conferences" have been taking place almost annually since 2014, where some - usually only a few - EU-sates and the EU Commission meet with the six non-EU member countries of Southeastern Europe, with the aim of strengthening their bonds with the Union. The establishment of this EU format - at times, referred to as the "Berlin Process" - was in answer to the first "16+1"-Summit in April 2012, in whose framework, China has since been meeting annually with Eastern and Southeastern European EU and Non-EU countries.[5] However, there have been no major achievements to date. This is why Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz used yesterday's Western Balkans Summit to warn: “If the European Union does not offer this region a real perspective, we have to be aware that other superpowers - China, Russia or Turkey - will play a bigger role there."[6] Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš expressed similar views when he remarked that "either Europe extends the hand and pulls these countries toward us or someone else will extend a hand and pull these countries in a different direction." Kariņš openly proclaimed: "This is our backyard."[7]

Only Lip Service

Being under pressure, the EU was seeking verbal concessions yesterday. EU membership for the six non-EU Southeast European countries has been stalled for years. In the meantime their membership is no longer considered a realistic option, due to various objections raised within the EU. To dispel this - accurate - impression, Brussels has had the formulation included in yesterday's "Brdo Declaration:" "the EU reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process" - "enlargement" written in bold letters.[8] Admittedly, hardly anyone is convinced by this commitment. According to Kosovo's former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Petrit Selimi, “politicians in countries in Northern and Western Europe" are regularly "paying lip-service" to enlargement. "De facto, the EU enlargement is dead."[9] Indeed, the Brdo Declaration restricts the alleged enlargement process commitment by stating that it is "based upon credible reforms by partners" and a "fair and rigorous conditionality." Slovenia, which currently holds the European Council presidency, urged the EU to commit to admitting the Western Balkan states by 2030, at the latest. That demand was clearly rejected.

No New Funds

The few concrete measures agreed on at the Western Balkans Summit yesterday, include a nearly €30 billion investment package. It is comprised of €9 billion in grant funding and €20 billion in investments, leveraged by the new Western Balkans Guarantee Facility, and intended "primarily to finance infrastructure in the Balkans and its ties to the EU."[10] Thus, it serves as a direct countermeasure to Chinese support for Southeast European infrastructure projects. However, these are not new funds. In principle, they were already planned last year by the EU Commission.[11]

The main Vaccine Supplier

In addition, the EU has announced that it would support the six non-EU countries in their fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Already the Union "and its Member States ... have provided 2,9 million vaccine doses through various channels to the Western Balkans," according to the Brdo Declaration. There is "more to come." The objective is to help the Southeast European countries to "reach similar vaccination rates as the EU average by the end of 2021." If this is achieved the EU will, of course, not be able to claim the sole credit for it. Alongside Sputnik V vaccines, the countries of the region have, above all, been supplied with the Chinese (Sinopharm, Sinovac) vaccines. According to the Beijing-headquartered Bridge Consulting, Chinese vaccine deliveries have so far been at around 7.6 million doses. In Serbia, where a plant is already producing Sputnik V vaccines, a factory for producing the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine will be built. The factory is a joint venture between Serbia, China and the United Arab Emirates worth €30 mil.[12]

Propaganda Rather than Action

Apparently suspecting that merely moderate EU material support would not suffice for firmly binding the six Southeastern European nations to the Union, Brussels has now insisted on commitments. The EU is "by far the region’s closest partner, main investor and principal donor," according to yesterday's Brdo Declaration. The "unprecedented scale and range of this support must be fully recognized and conveyed by the partners in their public debate and communication."[13] Here, the lack of political-economic binding power is being replaced by propaganda.[14]


[1] See also The Hegemony over Southeast Europe.

[2] See also Strategic Rivalry over Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

[3] See also The New Partners in Ankara (II).

[4] See also Kriegsverbrechen im Kosovo.

[5] See also Ein Kompass für Südosteuropa.

[6] EU hält sich den Westbalkan weiter warm. n-tv.de 06.10.2021.

[7] Laurence Norman: EU's Balkan Expansion Plans Stall. wsj.com 06.10.2021.

[8] Brdo Declaration, 6 October 2021.

[9] Laurence Norman: EU's Balkan Expansion Plans Stall. wsj.com 06.10.2021.

[10] Ein größerer Trostpreis für den Westbalkan. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 06.10.2021.

[11] Westbalkan: Wirtschafts- und Investitionsplan zur Unterstützung der wirtschaftlichen Erholung und Konvergenz. ec.europa.eu 06.10.2020.

[12] Serbia starts building Europe's first Sinopharm vaccine plant. intellinews.com 09.09.2021. See also Die Impfstoffdiplomatie der EU.

[13] Brdo Declaration, 6 October 2021.

[14] See also The "Politics of Generosity".